As the fall semester starts, one question will undoubtedly be lobbed at millions of college students across the nation: What are you majoring in?
And then, the cringe-inducing follow-up: What are you gonna do with a degree in anthropology/zoology/religious studies/medieval history?
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The question is especially timely: With student loan debt in the United States climbing over $1 trillion and the job market still sputtering, choosing a major seems increasingly important as students contemplate how they will pay off those looming loans.
Every year, the media is abuzz with which majors lead to the best job prospects. (Architecture and clinical psychology majors have the highest rates of unemployment, the newest studies say; petroleum engineering majors could be making $178,000, no problem.)
But really: Is that one choice in college going to singlehandedly make or break your job prospects? To find out how much undergraduate majors really matter, we spoke to the people who count most: hiring managers.
Even if you’re long past this stage of your life, you’ll want to read these surprising quotes to find out if your major could still be holding you back years after graduation—or how to spin it to best advantage in your next interview.
Here’s what they told us:
1. Majors Matter More When You’re Young
“For more entry-level positions, having the suggested major listed on the job posting is more relevant, and is definitely one of the top criteria I’m looking for,” says Caleb Leiker, hiring manager for TheLadders, an online job-matching service for professionals. “Ten years into a career, however, your progression in the field is more important, and I’m less likely to care about your undergraduate major.”
2. Your School and GPA Are More Important
“I like to see a history of high achievement,” says Elle Kaplan, CEO of Lexion Capital Management, one of the nation’s few woman-owned and -operated investment firms. “If you go to a great school, have risen to leadership positions in your extracurricular activities and have achieved a very high GPA, that matters more to me than the particular major you chose.”
3. Has Your Major Given You Relevant Skills?
“If your major or background isn’t listed as the preferred credentials for a position, you still have a shot if you make it clear that you have the skills required to do the job well,” says Jeanine Hamilton, founder and president of Hire Partnership, a full-service staffing and workforce solutions firm based in Boston.
Mitchell D. Weiss, a financial services exec, entrepreneur and adjunct professor at the University of Hartford, agrees wholeheartedly. “Use your major to help you make the pitch for the job you want,” he says. “If your major seems unconventional in light of the job you’re applying for, use your cover letter to highlight the relevant skills you learned that the hiring manager might be surprised by. I knew an English major who applied for finance jobs, and he ended up getting one by stressing how his communication skills would help him succeed in that position.”
4. In-Demand Skills Trump All
“If you’re applying to an engineering job, then yes, an engineering major is going to have the competitive edge,” says Suki Shah, CEO of GetHired.com, a hiring solutions service for businesses. “But for other industries and positions, it’s much less important.” A liberal arts degree, for example, can be applicable for a variety of jobs. One aspect of what you’ll want to stress is how your particular major taught you to think and problem-solve.
“And even for jobs that would appear more major-specific, like computer science-based positions such as programming,” says Shah, “there’s such a demand right now for good programmers and technologists that if you were able to teach yourself programming languages and demonstrate them on a skills test or through a portfolio of work, you would still have a very good chance at getting hired, even if you majored in something less relevant.”
5. Remember, It’s Just One Piece of Information
“If you think about all the information on your résumé—your relevant work experiences or internships, your extracurricular activities, your volunteer work, your GPA, etc.—your major is just one small data point,” says Kaplan.
Mitchell D. Weiss agrees: “Your first objective is to get them on the phone with you, or score an in-person interview. This is an opportunity to wow them, and to really emphasize your skills and your assets. If you successfully do that, your major will matter all the less.”